The best day of the festival almost turned out to be a disaster. Those aforementioned clear paths from the parking lots and sweet, smooth walks through a security staff with light hands did not extend to actually getting to the festival. Indio and Riverside County police turn the warren of gated communities and golf courses and miles-long blocks that surround the polo fields into a frustrating maze of blocked-off streets and unintuitive one-way turns that had me doubling back and retracing my drive more than once. And by the time I finally found a way to a parking lot, the line to get in was absurd and poorly directed. Note to Goldenvoice: please put a GPS address on your parking directions that actually works, and preferably more than one, so that I don’t have to miss all of Shura, Mitski, and Local Natives.
I did manage to see the tail end of Icelandic rock band Kaleo, a group that is appearing more and more to be the next Black Keys in terms of arena headlining potential. The group’s muscular delta blues rock is nigh indistinguishable from their American counterparts, and with a hit single that already went gold on the Billboard chart, likely only to get more and more omnipresent. A lot of the credit should go to frontman JJ Julius Son, whose deep vocals complemented the band’s deft, rootsy work with a showmanship that seems already a decade earned. Easy contender for band most likely to be crushing an Outdoor or Main Stage sunset set in two years.
A close contender for best guest spot this weekend has to include old person crooner Michael McDonald to play the keyboards on Thundercat’s “Show Me the Way” and then to sing his part in the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” while Thundercat’s band killed it. Thundercat himself is always a joy to watch live, and the chops on the other musicians assisting him are no joke either. Packing the Mojave tent is no small feat, especially when going up against crowd pleasers like Bastille, but the size of the crowd was a testament to one of the best improvisational musicians in the business (his deconstruction of “Tenfold” was singularly stunning). Tycho’s subsequent set at the Outdoor Stage was another testament to the power of a good live band. Once purely a DJ set, his new live show is immersive and thoroughly entertaining, at once mellow yet propulsive and smooth. And those who missed his solo knob fiddling were treated to a surprise DJ set at the closing of the Do LaB stage across the festival grounds later that night.
One of the best sets of the weekend came from an unexpected place when Norwegian duo Röyksopp came on in the Sahara tent as the sun was going down. The DJs put on a live show with the best lights of the weekend, a dizzying demonstration of lasers, video images, and detailed, constantly changing artwork that took full advantage of the nearly 360-degree displays layering every piece of the massive, electronic-focused (read: water bottles and vapor rub) tent. They were joined by iamamiwhoami singer and To whom it may concern record label head Jonna Lee, who took over the Robyn role on bangers like opening track “Monument,” “Running to the Sea,” and closer “Do It Again” and sounded pretty damn convincing in doing so. Röyksopp are old hats at house game, and with a setlist that ebbed and flowed and showed a compelling attention to detail too commonly forgotten in the when’s-the-next-drop modern EDM scene, put to shame the who’s who of DJ Mag’s Top 100 that came after and before them.
Live electronic music was apparently all over the grounds Saturday, as trio Moderat put on a particularly hypnotizing set in the Mojave tent heavy in breakbeats and minimal four on the floor tribalism. Sascha Ring’s vocals were an interesting touch, adding a production element that sounded a bit Morrissey-esque and livening up the heavy German and Detroit techno influences that predominated. Even better was Los Angeles quartet Warpaint in their neighboring set at the Gobi tent. The group’s live presence has only grown more muscular as they’ve pumped out three stellar albums and played an increasingly polished live show. Guitarist/vocalist Theresa Wayman wore the shirt of the weekend, a cut-off that said, simply, “Eat More Pussy.” It was a fitting symbol of the band’s live work, all meat and no filler. Even “New Song,” an irrepressible sellout of a pop song, was distorted and shredded up into a proper rock track to close things out with the closest thing to a crowd pleaser.
Another startingly killer set came courtesy of French disco house DJ and Ed Banger mainstay Breakbot, who crashed the Gobi tent with a late night dance party that practically glistened with leftover cocaine residue from Studio 54 and featured perhaps the best backing band of any electronic act – or, frankly, any band period – all weekend. Indeed, those who stopped by the Gobi tent, drawn by the freakiest finger-licking bass work all weekend and tight, virtuosic guitar work, may not have even released they were listening to the work of a DJ (mixing, like Jesus in an all-white suit and long flowing hair, in the back center of the band) until the two guest vocalists gave him props near the end of the set. Impossibly funky and effortlessly spry, Breakbot and his band merged the traditional push-and-pull dynamics of house music, the spit-shined polish of old-school disco and the prodigal craftsmanship of the anonymous backing bands that cut so many ace records in the ‘60s and ‘70s, sight unseen.
What it lacked in flow-destroying technical errors, Lady Gaga’s headlining set made up for in pure brass balls. The question of whether this is actually the year Coachella sold out after many years of having that meaningless accusation lobbed at it is sort of moot. It was nearly impossible to expect Goldenvoice to find a replacement performer for Beyoncé long after the festival had sold out, particularly given Beyoncé’s unique combination of pop stardom and indie cred. Frankly put, Gaga is a little lacking in the latter department, but she had no trouble matching the pop output of that equation when she took the stage to perhaps the largest crowd in Coachella history Saturday night (an odd combination of no Outdoor Stage or Sahara tent performer at the same time). It would take a lot to overcome both fans’ expectations to replace Beyoncé as well as their disappointment in not seeing her, and Gaga did about as best as could be expected in this situation.
It wasn’t flawless, but for as mainstream a pop performer as has ever played at Coachella, the crowd ate it up, and Gaga herself was on point and largely game to stretch her limits. She hit a wide range of notes (surely one of the few pop stars alive to be able to sing what she did at Coachella without assistance), played piano and guitar (and, for “Just Dance,” a goddamn keytar), and bantered with a very receptive audience. The setlist was about what you expected, all the hits minus “Paparazzi” (a nigh criminal omission, in my opinion), as well as a smattering of tracks from the relatively undercooked and underappreciated 2016 album Joanne and even a new, graciously received song in “The Cure.” It was belabored by some strange production choices and some uncharacteristically restrained set design for someone with Gaga’s outsized personality, and it was easy to tell who came for the hits and who knew the songs that haven’t been played a million times on radio. But the crowd stuck around until the fireworks that accompanied the megawatt closing duo of “Poker Face” and “Bad Romance,” later than most likely expected. For both Gaga and Goldenvoice, that is most certainly a win.
Friday | Sunday